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'Geography Of Genius' Explores How Surroundings Influence Ideas

Jan 10, 2016

When Eric Weiner sat down to write his new book he had to tackle a big question first: How do you define genius?

"That's not as easy as it sounds," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "I have a slightly unusual definition ... that a genius is someone we all agree on is a genius. It's a social verdict."

Weiner traveled all over the world — to Greece, Italy, Scotland and Silicon Valley — to investigate how genius takes root and grows. His book The Geography of Genius is an exploration of how great thinkers are affected by the places and times in which they live.


Interview Highlights

On whether a genius is born or made

Neither. Genius is grown, I believe. And I think we really are hung up on those first two theories. And we have really become to believe that. We really believe that if you look at, say, a Mozart who shows his prodigious talent at a young age, clearly there must be something genetic. It must be all genetic. And I really don't think that's true. Increasingly the evidence shows that genetics makes up a relatively small part of the genius puzzle. Geniuses are made, yes. Hard work matters. I don't deny that some sweat is involved but, it doesn't explain why you see genius clusters. Why would you see places like Renaissance Florence or Classical Athens or Silicon Valley today having such a concentration of geniuses? Are they all extra hard workers? I don't think that explains it. I think there's something in the soil.

On the role competition plays

I think it's important with the proviso that it has to be healthy competition. If you look at a place like Renaissance Florence, there was fierce competition. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci despised one another. They really couldn't stand one another. But that brought out the best in both of them. And it turns out that the modern social science sort of backs up what I found on the ground. For instance, one study found that we tend to cooperate better with whom we once competed. And you see that time and again. Competitors turned into teammates.

On the "sweet spot of friction"

Freud was an outsider, he was a Jew, he was an immigrant and there was real tension in Freud's Vienna. His ideas were considered "fairy tales." And he had to really push against the system. But that's almost always the case. In these genius clusters there's friction. The genius fits, but it's not a perfect fit. It's an imperfect fit. And that sweet spot of friction, the right amount of friction is, I believe, what produces genius. ...

Someone who is fully invested in the status quo is not going to be a genius. I think that's fair to say, because they're not going to rock the boat. They're almost always an outsider. But I want to say they're not fully outsiders. They're what I call insider-outsiders. Freud is a good example. He was not fully accepted. But he was accepted enough that people listened to his ideas, or we wouldn't know the name Sigmund Freud today.

On whether Steve Jobs was a genius

While I was researching this book, my sort of cocktail party question was to go into a room and say, "So, was Steve Jobs a genius?" And in my experience, in this very unscientific survey, it was almost always split right down the middle, 50/50. Some people would say, "Oh, yes, absolutely he was a genius." And they would usually whip out their iPhone 6s or whatever and say, "Look at this thing, it's amazing. It's changed the world." And other people would say, "No, he wasn't a genius. He didn't really invent anything. He stole ideas from others. And he really doesn't belong on the same pedestal with Aristotle and Einstein and Freud.

On how genius is like fashion

I think if you go by what I call the "fashionista theory" of genius ... this idea that genius is a consensus, almost like fashion is a consensus — there's no good fashion or bad fashion, there's just what's fashionable ... you have to say that Steve Jobs is a genius because a lot of us, perhaps a majority, think that he was a genius. You know, we get the geniuses that we want and that we deserve. And this is what we care about; we care about technology.

On how geniuses are shaped by the time and culture in which they are born

Think about it: why are there no classical composers the likes of the Beethoven and Mozart out there today? There are very good ones, but we don't think that there's a Beethoven or a Mozart. It's not that the talent pool is dried up or there's been some weird genetic fluke that's diminished the talent pool. It's because if you're a young, ambitious person, you're more likely to head to Silicon Valley than to Vienna to study classical music. ...

During Mozart's time, in Vienna, 18th century, he had an extremely receptive audience, he had a demanding audience, and his audience was almost a co-genius with him. We tend to think that the genius produces this magnificence. And we, the audience, just passively receive it. I don't think it works that way. Mozart was acutely aware of his audience and the demands that they had. And the audience appreciated his music, demanded better music from him — if more of us were like that today, vis-à-vis classical music, I think we would have more Mozarts.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Aristotle, Einstein, Michelangelo - the names have become synonymous with genius. But could each of these men come up with the ideas that change the world if they had been isolated from it? Or is genius a product of the time, and even more importantly, the place where it takes root? This is the central question in Eric Weiner's new book. It's called "The Geography Of Genius." Eric joins me now in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us and welcome home.

ERIC WEINER: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Many of our listeners will remember your name because you were a longtime correspondent for NPR.

WEINER: I was.

MARTIN: And we're happy to have you here. Your previous book was about your search for the happiest places on earth. You are now looking for where genius takes root and grows. I imagine you had to start off by defining it.

WEINER: Yeah...

MARTIN: So how did you?

WEINER: ...I did. And that's, you know, not as easy as it sounds. I have a slightly unusual definition for genius. And my definition is that a genius is someone that we all agree on is a genius. It's a social verdict.

MARTIN: We just decide.

WEINER: We decide.

MARTIN: You traveled all over the world to research your book - Greece, Italy, Scotland - even Silicon Valley, we'll talk about that a little later. And in doing so, you raised a whole host of big, provocative questions. And with your permission, I'd just like to kind of muddle through a few of these with you.

WEINER: Let's muddle.

MARTIN: Let's muddle.

Is genius born or made?

WEINER: Neither. Genius is grown, I believe. And I think we really are hung up on those first two theories. And we have really become to believe that. We really believe that if you look at, say, a Mozart, who shows his prodigious talent at a young age, clearly, there must be something genetic. It must be all genetic. And I really don't think that's true. And increasingly, the evidence shows that genetics makes up a relatively small part of the genius puzzle.

Geniuses are made. Yes, hard work matters. And I don't deny that some sweat is involved, but it doesn't explain why you see genius clusters. Why would you see places like Renaissance Florence or classical Athens or Silicon Valley today having such a concentration of geniuses? Are they all extra hard workers? I don't think that explains it. I think there's something in the soil.

MARTIN: So let's talk a little bit more about that. How important is a sense of competition in the cultivation of genius?

WEINER: I think it's important with the proviso that it has to be healthy competition. If you look at a place like Renaissance Florence, there was fierce competition. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci despised one another. They really couldn't stand one another, but that brought out the best in both of them.

And it turns out that the modern social science sort of backs up what I found on the ground. For instance, one study found that we tend to cooperate better with those with whom we once competed. And you see that time and again, competitors turned into teammates.

MARTIN: You wrote about Sigmund Freud...

WEINER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And his relationship.

WEINER: Yes, yes. Freud was an outsider. He was a Jew. He was an immigrant. And there was real tension in Freud's Vienna. His ideas were considered, quote, unquote, "fairytales," and he had to really push against the system. But that's almost always the case. In these genius clusters, there's friction. The genius fits, but it's not a perfect fit. It's an imperfect fit. In that sweet spot of friction, the right amount of friction is, I believe, what produces genius.

MARTIN: It's interesting because you talk about the need for community, right? There has to be this kind of crucible of creativity to generate the genius. But there is something important about being an outsider, being apart from that community.

WEINER: Absolutely. I think someone who is fully invested in the status quo is not going to be a genius. I think that's fair to say because they're not going to rock the boat. They're almost always an outsider. But I want to say they're not fully outsiders. They're what I call insider outsiders. Freud is a good example. He was not fully accepted. But he was accepted enough that people did listen to his ideas, or we wouldn't know the name Sigmund Freud today.

MARTIN: We started out talking about how we collectively decide when someone's a genius, or we could spot it when we all see it. Let's talk about Silicon Valley because, apparently, the jury's out on Steve Jobs.

WEINER: Yeah.

MARTIN: You write about some kind of - there's ambivalence there. We haven't quite all decided whether or not Steve Jobs was a genius.

WEINER: So while I was researching this book, my sort of cocktail party question was to go into a room and say - so was Steve Jobs a genius? And in my experience in this very unscientific survey, it was almost always split right down the middle, 50-50.

Some people would say oh, yes, absolutely. He was a genius. And they would usually whip out their iPhone 6S or whatever and say look at this thing. It's amazing. It's changed the world.

And other people would say no, he wasn't a genius. He didn't really invent anything. He stole ideas from others. And he really doesn't belong on the same pedestal with Aristotle and Einstein and Freud.

You know, I have to say - I don't know what your opinion about it is.

MARTIN: I'm undecided.

WEINER: You're undecided. It's tough.

MARTIN: It's hard not to look at him and his legacy and say he didn't change the world. The products he created or helped bring to bear changed the world.

WEINER: Right, right.

And I think if you go by what I call the fashionista theory of genius, which is what we're talking about - this idea that if genius is a consensus, you know, almost like fashion is a consensus - it's like there's no good fashion, bad fashion - there's just what's fashionable -then you'd have to say that Steve Jobs is a genius because a lot of us, perhaps a majority, think that he was a genius. You know, we get the geniuses that we want and that we deserve. And this is what we care about. We care about technology.

MARTIN: It's a reflection...

WEINER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Of who we are in any given moment in our...

WEINER: Absolutely. I mean, think about it. Why are there no classical composers, the likes of Beethoven and Mozart out there today? There are very good ones, but we don't think that there's a Beethoven or a Mozart.

It's not that the talent pool has dried up or there's been some weird genetic fluke that's diminished the talent pool. It's because, if you're a young, ambitious person, you're more likely to head to Silicon Valley than to Vienna to study classical music.

And don't take this the wrong way, Rachel. I would say you're partly to blame for that (laughter) because during Mozart's time, you know, in Vienna, 18th century, he had an extremely receptive audience. He had a demanding audience. And his audience was almost a co-genius with him. We tend to think that, you know, the genius produces this magnificence, and we, the audience, just passively receive it. I don't think it works that way. Mozart was acutely aware of his audience and the demands that they had. And the audience appreciated his music, demanded better music from him. If more of us were like that today, vis-a-vis classical music, I would argue we'd have more Mozarts.

MARTIN: Eric Weiner - his new book is called "The Geography Of Genius."

Thanks so much for talking with us.

WEINER: Thank you. I hope you feel a little more genius-y because of the conversation.

MARTIN: Not quite sure, but I'll take what I can get. Thank you.

WEINER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.